Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Church of the Nazarene and "Liturgical Renewal"

Pastor Steven has asked a good question that has sparked a bit of conversation below. I'm not trying to short-circuit the conversation there, just to allow others who may have missed that conversation to join in.

His question is as follows: "Where do you see the CotN going in the future regarding liturgical renewal and the sacramental life?"

Many of you have added significant insights to our current status as a church body, and where you hope we might begin to move in our future together. Let me just briefly add my own two cents here (sorry to be late to the conversation, but I just got back from an interesting conference in Rome).

I don't know that I can speak authoritatively on either where the church as a whole currently is, or where it is going -- for a host of reasons, including that the numerical "majority" of Nazarenes resides outside the US -- but I can speak from within my own context, and I think we can all add where we hope the church might "go" in the future.

Here in Kansas City -- the supposed "center" of the CoN -- I see a couple of things happening. My own church, Trinity Church of the Nazarene, currently celebrates Eucharist every week, and is ordered somewhat loosely around aspects of a Book of Common Prayer liturgy (there are many aspects that are "free" and don't correspond exactly to an Anglican or episcopal liturgy). I don't see many other churches that practice similarly, however. The church my wife and I first attended, First Church of the Nazarene, seems to have dissolved its "Word and Table" service (though that church has been hurting, and is going through transition currently); other churches still distrust a weekly Eucharist as "mechanical." I think that on the whole, there is very little interest in "liturgical renewal" here save for from "the youth" (which would basically include the 30 or 35's and under)...and Trinity is made up of a great portion of NTS students. This is perhaps why "Jacob's Well," a non-denom church here in town that is organized and attended by a host of young folks, is such a popular place right now.

Two things.

(1) I think we have to be clear that our forms of worship must be allowed to be diverse, polyphonous, and thus allowed to vary from place to place (and especially from "culture" to culture)...this is extremely significant for a church like the CoN whose largest contingent is "international," and not essentially tied to the nationalistic American understandings of "church" -- no matter how much we attempt to pigeon-hole things to the contrary (an example of which would be a recent email sent out by a GS, to remain anonymous, to pastors essentially calling for the endorsement of McCain -- yes, liturgy influences our politics, just as politics influences our liturgy). And the necessity for diversity in worship is a very catholic element, actually, expressed quite clearly throughout various Christian traditions, and especially in so-called "orthodox" ones.

(2) There are certain elements of our gathered worship, our work, our liturgy, that are "essentials." Baptism, Eucharist, proclamation of the Word traditionally make up these essentials, themselves "instituted" by the living Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. Nevertheless, we need a clear understanding of just why it is these are "essential." A strong divorce between theology and doxology must be seen to be the culprit of a "deficient" liturgy -- one which assumes it can bypass or supplement these "essentials."

I think that what really is lacking in our church today is a theological understanding that the church is itself sacramental (to use Edward Schillebeeckx's language, Christ is the sacrament of encounter with God, while the church is the sacrament of encounter with the risen Christ). The sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are "essential" not simply because Christ "instituted" them -- because he "said so"; they are essential because it is through these means that we encounter the living God in our midst, that we are caught up in the event of the Spirit's gathering of the broken, dispersed body into a real, living unity under its head, Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.

So, when the Church of the Nazarene offers as a possible supplement to the sacrament of Baptism the "rite of dedication," or completely bypasses Baptism altogether through the means of "conversion," what is lost is not a "proper form," so much as the embodiment of theology as doxology (the only mode in which theology is truly Christian theology); and when the Church of the Nazarene offers the celebration of the Eucharist only once a month, or once a quarter, or in some places only once a year (yes these do still exist!!), what is lost is not truly an "episcopal" understanding of church as it is the failure to live into what really makes the church the church (as something that is always nourished from beyond itself). When we relinquish these modes of worship, we attempt to lock up the church as a possession to be attained (and one which we often assume we have already come into possession of), rather than a gift to be received and given away (since we are ourselves made gifts for the life of the world in the unifying work of Baptism and Eucharist, which happen as events around the proclamation of the Word of God, and by the power of the Holy Spirit). I would think that most Nazarenes would find this latter conclusion to be ironic, or something to be refuted. Well, let us refute it with our practices then; not with a unified "form," but in a living embodiment of God's Word which dispossesses us of all claims to being "right," and gives us away as bread and wine -- body and blood -- water and spirit -- towel and basin -- for the nourishment of the life of the world, which the Holy Spirit is making new.

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